How well does regulation of private schools work in Sub-Saharan Africa?


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A growing number of students in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are enrolled in private primary or secondary schools. The World Development Report 2018 (on which I was a co-author) highlighted an array of potential benefits and risks associated with broad provision of basic education by the private sector. “The key challenge for policy makers is to develop a policy and regulatory framework that ensures access for all children, protects families from exploitation, and establishes an environment that encourages education innovation. Managing a regulatory framework to achieve this is difficult: the same technical and political barriers that education systems face more generally come into play.”

How do countries in Sub-Saharan Africa perform that regulatory function? Baum, Cooper, and Lusk-Stover have a new paper that provides insight: “Regulating market entry of low-cost private schools in Sub-Saharan Africa: Towards a theory of private education regulation.”

How big is the private school market?

“In nineteen countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, over 20% of students are enrolled in non-state institutions at either the primary or secondary school levels... Between 1991 and 2003, private primary enrollments in Sub-Saharan Africa grew by 113%, compared with a 52% growth for public primary education.” Countries with the highest private primary enrollments (relative to all primary enrollments) are Equatorial Guinea (54%) and Mali (35%), and at the secondary level they are Liberia (60%) and Mauritius (57%).

How’s the regulation of private schools going?

  • “In only 1 of the 22 countries – Liberia – did we find any policy evidence of restrictions on for-profit providers.” (The data were gathered between 2013 and 2015, so this may have changed in some countries.)
  • “Less than half of the countries have policies which require schools to undergo regular inspections.”
  • “Where sanctions can be levied upon schools for poor performance – in 12 of the 21 countries – the standards for performance are rarely outlined.”
Does regulation affect the size of the market?

The authors regress the share of primary enrollment in private schools on a regulation index (along with a few controls) and don’t find a relationship. They do observe “a strong negative relationship between regulation stringency and private market growth at the primary school level…. Indeed, market regulation stringency accounts for a sizable share of explained variation in private primary market growth between 2000 and 2014, with R2 = 0.44.” The authors interpret that as follows: “As stringency of market entry regulations increases, growth in private school enrollment decreases.”

That’s not an implausible interpretation, but note that data on regulation were collected between 2013 and 2014, and the growth is measured from 2000 to 2014. So an alternative interpretation is that countries with faster private school growth between 2000 and 2014 had private sector providers with more political power, resulting in less regulation in 2014.

What about the unofficial market?

The authors provide two suggestive examples of the growth of “unofficial” (i.e., unregistered) private schools. In Tanzania, the supply of public pre-primary education is limited: while a small proportion of children (4.8%) are enrolled in private pre-primary according to official numbers, household surveys reveal a number closer to 25%. In one district of Lagos, Nigeria, with strict on-the-books regulation of private schools, “there were 73 approved private schools and 519 unapproved private schools” in 2011.

They conclude, “restrictive market entry regulations offer constraints on the growth of official private education markets, but…the same restrictive regulations are likely to facilitate the growth of unofficial markets, if demand for education is not being fully met by the supply of government service provision.” I wonder how this fits with the Lagos story, though. Is there a lack of government public schools in Lagos? Many of the unofficial schools have “inadequate infrastructure” and “lack of purpose-built buildings,” so what is it that’s drawing households to these unregistered private schools?

Last word

The paper provides a detailed, thoughtful discussion of economic theory around private schooling and a lot of descriptive data on regulatory frameworks for private schooling across Sub-Saharan Africa. But one clear take-away is that many countries do not have a strong regulatory framework in place for managing private schools, and even when in place, enforcement may be weak.

I’ll give the last word to the 2018 World Development Report: “Governments may choose to contract out some service delivery, but they should never contract out the responsibility for ensuring that all children and youth have the opportunity to learn.”


David Evans

Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development